Acorn Media has just released the latest adaptation of the Australian classic Picnic At Hanging Rock on Blu-ray. This six part, two disc, television adaptation of the 1960s novel of the same name is a mesmerizing and memorable experience. Haunting and entrancing it will keep you riveted from its opening scenes to the closing seconds.
The basic premise of Picnic At Hanging Rockis deceptively simple. It’s Valentines Day 1900 and the girls from the exclusive Appleyard College have gone for a picnic at Hanging Rock. However, when they return back to school three girls and one teacher have gone missing. Although one of the missing girls is later found alive, no trace of the other two or the teacher is ever discovered. It’s as if they vanished into thin air.
The bulk of the show is divided between the investigation of the disappearances and the peeling back of the layers of mystery surrounding the missing girls, the headmistress of the school, Hester Appleyard (Natalie Dormer) and the various people who came into contact with the girls on the day of their disappearance.
To talk about any of the details would be to give far too much away. Sufficient to say that nothing is what appears on the surface. Behind every genteel facade lurks a secret somebody is desperate to hide. However, its their secrets which motivate almost all the characters.
As Mrs. Appleyard Natalie Dormer is nothing short of magnificent. From the opening, when we see her purchasing the stately home which will become Appleyard College, we are both captivated and intrigued by her character. The more we watch, the more our fascination with her character grows as we try to decide whether we hate or feel sorry for her.
As the script allows, Dormer, carefully reveals another facet of Appleyard’s character. Ironically, with each new layer of her story revealed our confusion about her character actually grows and we lose any and all certainty about how we should feel towards her. This mystery is enhanced by Dormer’s ability to do a lot with a little. Even the slightest twitch of an eyebrow seems to communicate some secret or understanding.
The three young women chosen to play the students central to the story; Lily Sullivan as Miranda Reid, Samara Weaving as Irma Leopold, and Madeleine Madden as Marion Quade, are as compelling in their own right as Dormer.
Each are experienced actresses and bring a depth to their characters that makes Picnic At Hanging Rockboth frightening in its intensity but very real in its depiction of the events leading up to that fateful day in 1900. We see how each of these young women feel trapped by their circumstances and dream of finding a way free. Society and expectations may be trying to force them a narrowly defined role, but they dream of more than just making a good marriage or knowing proper etiquette.
Of course there’a also another character in the show – Australia itself – or more specifically Hanging Rock. This strange rock formation which juts up out of the surrounding area with its narrow canyons and steeply ascending trails leading to ever more perilous heights takes on a life of its own.
While its natural majesty is breathtaking enough, the creators of the show have used cameras and lighting to create a surreal atmosphere in the scenes taking place in and around Hanging Rock. Not only is it a place of mystery and danger it also becomes a place of seemingly unlimited possibilities – somewhere both dreams and nightmares can come true.
Watching the show on high definition Blu-ray helps make these particulars of the series come alive even more as the colours of the grass and foliage on Hanging Rock verge on being just a little too intense to be real. The Blu-ray edition also contains special features including some really nice interviews with the cast and a couple of truly interesting behind the scenes looks at the filming.
Picnic At Hanging Rock is one of the most compelling and intriguing mini series on television you’ll have the privilege of seeing. From acting to script to cinematography, this show both a visual and intellectual treat.
(Article originally posted at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Picnic At Hanging Rock - Starring Natalie Dormer)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.